Over four days this past week, reporters and competitors commingled in what for more than three decades now has been an annual rite of winter in NASCAR land. The 32nd edition of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway once again allowed ink-stained wretches and logo-clad drivers to exist pretty much in harmony, with writers filling notebooks and racers spilling quotes all in an effort to build interest, momentum, and storylines for the forthcoming season.
In many ways, it was the same as it's always been -- team principles on a stage thanking sponsors and professing excitement, journalists asking usually responsible, but occasionally ridiculous questions, all followed by breakout sessions in which writers or cameramen gather elbow-to-elbow around Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr. This year, though, rather than bussing the masses from race shop to race shop, the teams came to the convention center in downtown Charlotte. The Hall of Fame induction was incorporated. And it was all capped by a small NASCAR announcement you may have heard about.
But the more things change, the more things stay the same. The overall atmosphere was still one of optimism. Some journalists still went after gift bags -- filled with sponsor-related products, and handed out after some sessions -- as if they were the last edible scraps remaining on the planet. And the tour was still punctuated by those touching or humorous individual moments that stand out above the rest, and help provide depth and humanity to the entire week. From the event's 2014 edition, here are the top 10.
10. That'll be $5, Governor
With the tour moved downtown, the kickoff luncheon found a few home in the Great Hall of the Hall of Fame. And it had a few new attendees, such as Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory. A former Charlotte mayor who refers to his home turf as the "NASCAR Valley," McCrory confessed to attending his first race in 1975 -- by walking through an unattended gate at Charlotte Motor Speedway for free, after the World 600 was halfway over. To make amends for skirting the entry fee, McCrory pulled out a $5 bill and offered it to track president Marcus Smith. "I'm not sure we could afford the compounded interest," Smith joked. "We'll forgive the taxes on this," the governor responded. "Just don't tell anyone at my department of revenue."
9. Bowyer on the big game
When it comes to Clint Bowyer, there are few simple answers. Ask him for a Super Bowl pick, for instance, and hold on. "I'm going to freeze my ass off, but nonetheless I think we're going," he said during the Michael Waltrip Racing visit. "Peyton (Manning) -- what a great story. Probably could've, should've retired and (still) would've had a huge legacy and impact in the sport. You hear all these things about other players, that man changed everything. He went to a complete new team and is right back on top, competing for a Super Bowl again. It's a great story and he represents the sport well. You hate to say it, but Jimmie (Johnson) -- he is a champion, not only in the car, but out of the car. He represents the sport in the right way for kids growing up racing, that's what champions need to do. Peyton certainly conducts himself well. ? He did beat the Chiefs twice. I wasn't very happy with him over that, but nonetheless, that's who my pick is." We've got it ? we think.
8. Calamity Jeff
Although not technically on the itinerary, the 2014 paint scheme on Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car was unveiled at the NASCAR Hall of Fame shortly after the tour officially concluded on Thursday afternoon. Before the vehicle -- a sharp, gleaming black number with those trademark flames flowing down the sides -- was uncovered, Gordon admitted to needing some of his sponsor Axalta's product because of a fender-bender he had been involved in while pulling out of a parking lot earlier in the day. Team owner Rick Hendrick, seated right next to the four-time champion, couldn't resist. "That wasn't the first car you've wrecked," he cracked, explaining that Gordon had totaled 17 -- 17! -- cars in the driver's rookie season of 1993, when he also had 11 DNFs. No wonder, then, Hendrick struck a deal with an automotive finishing brand as a sponsor.
7. Professor Tony
Tony Stewart is back. No, maybe he hasn't yet returned to the race track -- that will have to wait a few weeks still -- but the three-time NASCAR champ, who missed the last four months of the 2013 season with a broken leg suffered in a sprint-car accident, is clearly back to his acerbic old self when it comes to dealing with the media. That much was evident during the Stewart-Haas Racing tour session, when a reporter asked Stewart to confirm Twitters posts that indicated he'd been cleared for Sprint Unlimited practice at Daytona. It was a legitimate and responsible question, but even so, Stewart couldn't resist. "Read the Internet every once in a while, and you'll see I got released a couple of days ago," he lectured. "It was on the Internet everywhere. I'll show you how to use your computer later." Ah, Tony, how we've missed you.
6. Felix being Felix
Although Chip Ganassi wasn't at the tour stop for his namesake team -- he evidently had some business with another racing series -- Felix Sabates certainly was, and no one can liven up an early-morning session better than the Cuban-born minority owner of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. "Eight-thirty in the morning is early as hell," Sabates said. "If we had 10 wins, we'd be at 4 o'clock in the afternoon." As for the team's recent name change from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Sabates joked that he was all for it, because his name now appears more prominently on the logo. And though he's cut back his race schedule in recent years, Sabates plans on attending 28 events in 2014. The reason? Kyle Larson. "The first opportunity the kid has to get to Victory Lane," Sabates said, "I don't want to be at the club playing golf with a bunch of idiots." It all made getting up early quite worthwhile.
5. Junior on Junior
Perhaps the best individual interview session of the tour belonged to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who seemed as comfortable before the microphones as he is storming the high line at Daytona. Always honest, he didn't mince words. On not winning as much as he'd like: "It really motivates you and ticks you off." On hopes for 2014: "I think we're right there. I think we're right around the corner. This is the year. Maybe this is the year." His best comments, though, were on Austin Dillon taking over his father's former car at Richard Childress Racing. The No. 3 returns to the premier series this season after a hiatus of 13 years, with Childress' grandson behind the wheel. "This is how it should happen," said Earnhardt, who never wanted the ride himself. "This is what should happen, with Austin and Richard." No doubt.
4. Suave Drew Herring
On a team with plenty of star power, who would have thought that the driver who would steal the show at the Joe Gibbs Racing tour session would be -- Drew Herring? But that's exactly what happened when the team showed a photo from Herring's Instagram feed -- one of the part-time Nationwide Series driver as a youngster, kicked back on a rattan couch, wearing white pants and white suede shoes, with a stuffed Easter bunny placed next to him and a Dale Earnhardt No. 3 pendant hanging from his neck. His sister had sent him the photo, so Herring decided to share it with the world. "I mean, I was looking good back then," he said. "Not much has changed. A little more facial hair, but any guy who can pull that off is pretty confident and comfortable with himself." Indeed.
3. Monkey business
Tim Flock may be gone, but former Charlotte track president Humpy Wheeler did the driver proud when the late NASCAR champion was inducted into the Hall of Fame. And any mention of Flock brought memories of Jocko Flocko, the monkey who once rode in his car. As a tribute, Wheeler wished he'd have brought his own primate. "They're illegal in the convention center, but the fine is only $92," he joked after his speech. In the press room after the ceremony, Flock's widow Frances regaled reporters with stories of Jocko's exploits. "He had a helmet, he had a uniform, and he had a safety belt, and he'd sit in that seat with his safety belt connected," she said. That is, until he got loose and cost Tim a race. "Tim literally had to pull in the pits, leading the race, and pull a monkey off his back." And not the figurative kind.
2. Fathers and sons
On a night when most Hall of Fame inductees were enshrined by family members or others in the racing industry, it initially seemed odd that country singer Blake Shelton would do the honors for his friend Dale Jarrett. That is, until Shelton began his speech and started talking about his father, a lifelong NASCAR fan. "I hope you drivers realize the kind of impact you have on the lives of everyday, hard?working people -- people like my dad," he said. It struck a perfect tone, given that Dale and Ned Jarrett are now the only living father and son combination to earn enshrinement. "I had no idea what Blake was going to say," Jarrett said later in the media room. "Knowing him, that could have gone in a lot of ways." But it went the right way, and by the end there was hardly a dry eye in the ballroom.
1. Live from Anguilla
Tuesday was a grim day in Charlotte, one that began with cold and overcast conditions, and ended with a few inches of snow on the ground. Some journalists on tour were left scrambling due to school closings, others crept home on icy roads. For Martin Truex Jr., though, it was all sunshine and palm trees. "My biggest concern is getting sunburned," said the new Furniture Row Racing driver, and with good reason -- he was lounging in 80-degree temperatures on the lovely, tropical Caribbean island of Anguilla, appearing via a video screen to the shivering masses in North Carolina.
At first, there was a degree of consternation among the media when it was learned that Truex -- the lone driver on a one-car team -- would miss the Furniture Row stop because of a previously-scheduled vacation, replaced by a cardboard standup placed next to a row of director chairs on stage. That all disappeared, though, when his smiling face popped onto a video screen via a Skype hookup. In a sport that craves any sort of variety, this was certainly different.
"Look out your window and look out mine," he needled, and then on cue was handed a Captain Morgan and ginger ale. "That wasn't even planned," he added. "Perfect." It was everything the Sprint Media Tour should be -- fun, playful, interesting and sunny in disposition. Let's just hope other drivers don't get the same idea.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Tony Stewart
- Felix Sabates